LLI Spotlight:  Katie Compton, Director, Lifelong Learning Institute, Washington University in St. Louis

By Peter Spiers

The Lifelong Learning Institute at Washington University in St. Louis was founded in 1995 by a remarkable and dedicated group inspired by the LLI at Northwestern University and dedicated to the idea of peer learning.  With the strong backing of Mark Wrighton, the newly-appointed Washington University chancellor, the program began with three classes and about 20 participants and within five years, according to Director Katie Compton, was “cooking with gas.”  In 2002 the university granted the LLI dedicated classroom space in a campus building with adjacent covered parking, another spur to growth.  Today the LLI boasts 1,400 members, including 900 active in 2016-17.  Some members choose to pay an annual membership fee of $665, entitling them to enroll in three classes every semester, while others pay “a la carte.”  (More limited membership options are also available.)  The LLI’s calendar includes eight-week semesters in the fall, winter and spring, and a four-week summer semester; all classes have an academic focus and the majority of classes adhere to the founders’ vision of peer learning.  Under the wing of the university’s professional and continuing education division, the LLI is managed by Compton with the support of volunteers organized into an executive committee and other functional committees.  Perhaps the busiest group is the curriculum committee, comprising chairs of nine subject-specific subcommittees, which is constantly working to create new courses and mentor new facilitators.

What do you consider your major responsibilities at your LLI?

First, to serve as a liaison with the university.  We have a terrific relationship with Wash U and have never been under any sort of pressure from them, so my focus is more about keeping abreast of everything going on and keeping a lookout for university resources I can bring to the LLI.  Second, leading curriculum development, with the support of the curriculum committee.  Curriculum is what drives our organization, and I need to make sure that we have 35 to 40 strong courses every semester and, since we’re committed to the peer-learning model, I need to make sure our facilitators have the support to deliver the classroom experience our members expect.  Finally, being a friendly face to our members.  LLI is a community and it’s important to work closely with all members and know who they are.  It creates a positive tone and is also the best way to learn who might be interested in volunteering for a more active role.  I’m very lucky to have a full-time administrative assistant who handles all of the inventory and financial aspects of class registration.        

What are some favorite courses you offer?

One of our recently deceased members facilitated more than 50 film classes — she focused every semester for nearly 20 years on a different film theme.  Another example of a committed facilitator is Karen Sterbenz, who has co-lead “Reading The New Yorker” for 17 years and is offering “Turning Life into Fiction” and “100 Years of the Best American Short Stories” this semester.   We have five or six writing courses every semester.  We’re pretty weighted toward the humanities, with history and literature courses especially popular.  STEMM courses are always popular. This semester we’re offering “Science Snippets XII,” featuring different guest presenters, most of whom are LLI members, talking about their area of interest or expertise at each class session.  Our facilitators cover the gamut in terms of facilitating topics, some reflecting their professional or academic expertise, while some follow their personal passion or avocation. One good example of the latter is a retired pediatrician who loves Shakespeare and has taken our members through the Bard’s canon two times over!

In addition to “Reading the New Yorker,” “Reading the Wall Street Journal” and “Reading the Economist” and several contemporary issues courses are perennial favorites.

Again, because of our commitment to peer learning, our facilitators are encouraged to use a variety of techniques for engaging participants, including assigning reports (on a voluntary basis, of course), small group breakouts, conflict management and, naturally, methods for both drawing comments out and making sure that our most enthusiastic members give others a chance to participate!  Although we discourage the lecture format, we do have a few very popular exceptions to this peer learning rule.

We also have special programs we charge a nominal fee for, like presentations from medical school faculty talking about current research, or field trips to the Saint Louis Art Museum.

What developments do you see in the future for your LLI or for the Lifelong Learning Movement more broadly?

I think our single-minded dedication to peer learning makes us kind of unusual.  It takes a lot of work to maintain that focus and, for the near future and beyond, that’s what we want to do.  Some LLIs have huge numbers and big lectures.  That’s not our model.  We continue to grow incrementally but are limited by our classroom space and our ideal parking situation.  We tried some satellite locations and retirement communities but they didn’t really work.  Our members really want to be here.  This is a community.  Our students make new friends; people take a class and then go out to lunch together.  For older adults that’s unusual.  As we say, you’re never too old to learn something new; you’re never too old to make a new friend; and you’re never too old to have fun.

What did you do before you came to Washington University?

I have a bachelor’sn history from Smith and a master’s in history from William and Mary.  I worked for a while in advertising and communications, raised three kids, wrote two murder mysteries which were published, and went back to work when my oldest child went away to college.  I’ve been here 15 years and it’s a great place to work.  I get to spend all day talking to interesting people about interesting things.

Where would you most like to travel to that you haven’t visited already?

Monument Valley in Arizona is definitely on my bucket list.  I’m a big fan of the film director John Ford, who set many of his greatest films there.  I’d also love to hit the road and follow the route of the Santa Fe Trail.

Tell me about a book you’ve read or podcast you’ve listened to that you would recommend to others?

I had completely overlooked Australian author Shirley Hazzard before I read her obituary last December, so I read her book “The Transit of Venus.”  Wow, what a writer!  She weaves a wonderful story where all the strands come together in the end, and you really have to pay attention to what you’re reading.  She reminds me a lot of Hilary Mantel, another favorite of mine. I’m always happy to discover a new author, even when it’s an old author!